The RSC has done a clever thing this summer by producing both The Jew of Malta and the play that it most famously inspired by its success, The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe’s play is one of his finest and if he is writing at a time when Elizabethan Theatre was still experimental and finding its way both dramatically and linguistically, Justin Audibert’s intelligent production certainly shows it at its best, flaws and all. As with Matthew Dunster’s Love’s Sacrifice, this is an RSC debut that adds a name to their roster that you should clock and watch out for. He has great empathy with the characters, especially the Jew, Barabas, and a sure sense of the culture clashes with which the play deals – as relevant today as they were to the Elizabethans. The use of Jewish klezmer music against the Christian plainchant is just one of the devices that anchors and differentiates the communities of Malta and their needs and attitudes; and the costume design and dancing of the Turks adds to the ability to understand the religious turmoil and terrors of that period. With a practical design by Lily Arnold that allows us to change scenes and venues with ease, and stirring and apt music by Jonathan Girling, this is an appealing and attractive interpretation of the play.
Of course, as always with this play, it depends heavily on the central performance and interpretation of the Jew Barabas, the merchant of Malta who has to somehow captivate with his outrageousness so thoroughly that we tend to overlook how appalling he actually is and even root for him. He is as appealing as the devil has to be in Faust. This production certainly manages to convey the idea that someone in his situation would not only have just cause but would develop into the obsessive iconoclast and murderer that he is because of nurture more than nature. And his nature comes across as believable. We are almost sorry when he messes up towards the end and gets his comeuppance. Jasper Britton, a superb Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and also The Tamer Tamed, a few seasons back, is a gallingly attractive Barabas and centres the play beautifully. He is superbly matched by Lanre Malaolu as his slave, Ithamore, who supports and then betrays him and helps drive the plot.
Add to this a strong cast that includes Catrin Stewart as Abigail, Simon Hedger as Machiavel for whom the only sin is ignorance; a camp Matthew Needham as Pilia-Borza the pimp; and Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly as the friars among a completely committed cast. The ensemble is very strong and cohesive and the production is paced perfectly. The weaknesses of the play are pretty well handled; the language is gorgeous; and it is only when one crosses to the main auditorium and sees how Shakespeare developed the character of the Jew in his play The Merchant of Venice while fully subscribing to an image not dissimilar from Marlowe’s, that one begins to experience how the interpretation of society and humanity grew in Elizabethan drama until they defined a modern person we can recognize today and sympathize with despite everything distressing in the action. The play, coupled with Love’s Sacrifice in the Swan for the summer, also lets us experience something of the development of the sophistication of the theatre from late Elizabethan through Carolingian times.
The Jew of Malta runs throughout the summer until 8 September in The Swan and is superbly theatrical and gripping. Jasper Britton gives a remarkable and memorable central performance as the Jew – a sinister and, at times, hilariously outrageous character. His energy is spectacular and matches the imagination and energy of Marlowe himself in creating this play.